Sunday, March 20, 2016

Graceful At Last

I've never loved my name: Karissa. I don't hate it, but I don't love it. It comes from the Greek word, "charis", meaning "grace". That's why Karissa is often spelled Charissa or Carissa. People try and spell my name Karrisa sometimes, too. I immediately love any barista who can spell my name correctly. That said, I'm not one of those people who is really particular about my name. As long as you talk at me using a name that starts with a C/K sound, I'll probably respond. Unless you're that one guy who immediately said, "Karissa, huh? That sounds like 'caress'..." Ew. Get away from me.

Like me, my mama takes the meaning of names very seriously. Growing up, she would remind me from time to time that my name meant "grace". This troubled me for the longest time, because I felt that it was very unfitting for me. I don't think of myself as a very graceful person. I bruise very easily and I'm also really talented at running into everything.  My legs perpetually look like a 6-year-old tomboy's. I tried to be regal and poised, and it was more trouble than it was worth. That struggle has become a theme in my life.

A decade or so later, it occurred to me that maybe "grace" meant more like, being gracious. That was a slightly higher calling, but as it turns out, I'm not great at that either. Self betterment and all, but seriously, some people on this planet are legitimately not smart. I try and love them still, but the struggle is absolutely real. Again, it really bothered me that my name didn't describe me properly in any sense that I could think of. 

I'm telling you all this because my sister encouraged me to share my testimony recently and as I've been thinking about it, the concept of grace takes center stage. I was struck by the suitability of my name at last, after all these years of being really "meh" about it. Thanks, mom. 

You see, charis refers to the grace of God, and even though I'm sure my mom told me that a million times, I didn't understand the grace of God at all until recently, and even now, I'm sure I don't fully grasp it. Even my Chinese name means "grace of God": En Dian, 恩典, which is very strange to Chinese people, because that's not a term that is widely known in China, and certainly not a proper name. 

I grew up in the Church - I mean, you can't get more churchy than being the child of missionaries. But even as a kid, I was very aware that my parents were the missionaries, and I was along for the ride. I received Christ at the ripe old age of 3. I don't even remember it. I got baptized at 13, mostly because my little sister was getting baptized and I felt that it reflected poorly on me not to be baptized before (or at least at the same time as) her. I did believe, but I was sure that I wasn't "good enough" to commit to truly following Christ (which I thought meant never sinning again, basically), and so I was kind of lying by engaging in the symbolism of baptism. At least, that's what I felt like I was doing at the time, even though it was a flawed view of what following Christ really means. I would come to find out that being perfect is kind of the opposite of what God calls us to when we decide to follow him. 

At any rate, I wore a hot pink bikini and got dunked in a muddy river in the middle of the Taklamakan desert, and then people got mad at me because we lived in a predominantly Muslim area and I wasn't supposed to wear a 2-piece bathing suit. Yeah, I was kind of a brat. 

I was a class-A little Pharisee, really. A bikini wearing Pharisee. I spent most of my childhood and all of my young-mid teenage years trying to be good, and I was good, as teenagers go, but I was also miserable. I struggled mightily with depression in high school, and I felt so betrayed that when I cried out to God for his help, I didn't hear anything back. That tormented me for years. I distinctly remember sitting in a blue bedroom, painting with clouds, forcing myself to pray and read the Bible for multiple hours a day, because that was what I thought would make me good. I thought it's what God wanted or required of me, and even if I didn't understand God, I understood how to follow rules.

I'm sickened by the fact that somehow Christian culture or youth group culture or Sunday school culture leaves a kid with the idea that salvation is on their own shoulders. Not every church misses the point of Grace, and I think that many of the church leaders I knew growing up were wise and genuine followers of Jesus. I don't know who to blame or whether there is anyone in particular really to blame for crippling legalism, but it was so ingrained in me and many kids I know who grew up in the Church. It's the biggest lie out there, and it absolutely destroys lives. Real lives. Lives that I have been and am a part of.

Understandably, parents (myself included, now) stress "being good" in all areas to our children. Hitting people is not good, lying is not good, etc. I want to teach my children morality, but it is so, so difficult to impart the truth that no amount of being bad (in any realm) changes God's love for you. I don't think any human parent can honestly say they treated their child with 100% the same unconditional love whether they never disobeyed or whether they wreaked havoc every second of their existence. Maybe that's why it's so hard to believe that God is a truly unconditionally loving parent.

When my parents moved back to the US for good, I was 16. Within a month of having moved to Santa Maria, I decided I was leaving the Church. I didn't broadcast this or renounce my belief in God, but I didn't want to be called a Christian or be a part of the Church as I knew it. This felt so dangerous, because I genuinely had no idea where I would go on this journey or where I would end up. Complacency? Eternal limbo? Hell? (The answer ended up being a 3 year - aka Eternal - limbo.) I didn't know anyone else who was going through the same struggle of faith - at least not openly. A lot of my friend's moms already thought I was a bad influence for dating a Catholic guy and listening to secular music and not wearing turtlenecks. You think I'm kidding, but I'm mostly not kidding. Imagine, then, the pressure of "coming out" as not-sure-I'm-a-Christian. Basically the only thing worse (and this is a joke, but actually kind of horribly sad and true) would be coming out as gay in the church culture. 
But I was so sick of failing to be good enough (my happiness or self worth being dependent on my own works or strength), and I was so sick of going to church and feeling like no one was being honest with me. I knew, in a textbook kind of way, that God was good for me, but I didn't know who he was anymore, and maybe I never had. If he was what the church said he was and if some of the church-goers I knew were accurate mini-mes of Jesus, I wanted nothing of that god. Ultimately, I found the agony of facing some sort of ostracization better than lying to myself that this version of Jesus was who I really believed in or that I wanted this kind of life. 

What was real? I didn't know, and I thought that I should start from the very, very beginning and only hold on to what I could be sure of. What I was sure of was very little, and honestly, it remains very little. I only continued going to church anymore because my dad required that I go to some sort of service while I still lived at home. I thought that was archaic and burdensome at the time, but it indirectly saved my life. 

For background, I was dating this nerdy, hot, art-dude named Jonas. Some of you may have heard of him. ;) We eventually got married. I was definitely not into the churches my parents had been trying out, but one church that they had tried out and decided against was Element. Their electric guitarist could really shred, and she was a girl! Some of you may know Michelle, she's now my bff. ;) But the pastor made a fart-in-a-wetsuit joke from the pulpit and my parents kept looking (sorry, Aaron! Lolzzz). (To be fair, that's a simplistic reason for why they kept looking for a church to join.)

So, like I said, I had to attend Church, per my dad's rules. I decided to go back to Element on my own (well, with Jonas), and soon thereafter, Aaron preached through a series on the Song of Solomon. I found Element engaging and I learned a lot every time I went to church. I was making some life choices that were not "good", and I was aware of that, but here I was, forced to be in church anyway. I had made it a priority to be honest with myself, and I knew that I couldn't pretend that I was on board with the Church or my life as a follower of Christ if I was knowingly going against his commandments. Kind of like the baptism scenario all over again, but sans bikini. 

I know this sounds incredibly arrogant, but I was not ready to live for Jesus. Maybe I had to experience being lost  - and know that I was lost - in order to want to be found. I think I had been lost all along, but I thought Jesus and I were on the same page, when we really weren't. Really, Jesus wasn't on my page, and it had been bothering me for a long time. [image]

The Song of Solomon messages pierced me. Song of Solomon, as it turns out, is rated R. There's a lot of steamy stuff in there, and it was not what I was used to hearing about in church. I appreciated the candor and was struck by the relevance of scripture. I'm a sensual being (not in a weird way, I'm just being honest), and I was made to be that way by God himself. I was told many times growing up that there was no place for that in the church. I had to be modest and pious and unattractive at all times. No one actually said the bit about being unattractive, but I always felt stifled by church culture and honestly, I liked being beautiful. I liked it when other people noticed. One great thing I learned from the Song of Solomon series is that it is OKAY TO BE HOT. God created all that is beautiful. I'm not a scourge of Satan if men notice that, and I'm not a pervert for noticing beauty in other people. 

I thought that following Christ meant surrendering myself, which is does. But I thought that if I surrendered myself, He would ask me to give up any and everything that I loved, and I wasn't willing to do that. I thought that it was inevitable that God would test my devotion to him by taking away what I loved most - Jonas. But another thing I learned from the Song of Solomon, is that sin ultimately destroys, even if it is gratifying for a time. That truth so clearly applied to me. I knew that my deliberate choices to be "not good" allowed me to be free, by my own definition of "free", but I was also beginning to see that the secrecy and guilt (even if that guilt was about disappointing my parents rather than hurting a Friend who laid down his life for me) was hurting my relationship with the one I loved most - Jonas - instead of binding us together.

Now, I wasn't about to be all, "I'm breaking up with you because I need to focus on Jesus." Bullshit. BUT, the realization that my lack of commitment to genuinely following Christ was actually hurting me and bringing me another brand of misery - that realization was a tipping point for me. In my memory, it was almost like I made this change on a dime. I was suddenly ready to own the fact that I could never be good enough or bad enough to change God's feelings toward me, and that freed me to love him with no strings attached. And that's it. That's what made me decide to follow Jesus. I finally truly believed that He loves me, whether or not I'm good at loving him, and no matter what loving him looks like in my life. 

That is, in very simplistic terms, what grace, charis, is. It is permission to rest in what God has given to me, free of charge. And you know what? It is so mind-blowingly great. There is really nothing more powerful or important in my life. My sister Annelise wanted me to share this because she said that not many people, at least not many millennials, get to hear a life story of how choosing to follow Christ made someone more free and more happy than they were before. Before my introduction to grace, "faith in Christ" was always the antithesis of freedom in my life. And yet, I honestly believe that Jesus does not call us to be slaves, he has RESCUED us from slavery! 

I often call my faith and the story of my journey to belief a "hard sell." It's pretty personal and pretty divine (as in not by my own willpower) and I don't know why someone who doesn't believe would buy it. It is not fun all the time, but it gives me hope, even when life is at its very worst. I have friends and siblings and siblings-in-law who haven't been able to reconcile an ugly world with the existence of a good God. You know what? I can't always either. I don't have answers for everything, or even very much at all, but that is what is so beautiful about faith to me. It FREES ME from having to answer everything out of my own finite brain power. I could never hope to understand fully what and why Jesus did what he did for me, because I sure as hell don't deserve it. Am I a logic-less, backward freak for trusting in the grace of God? Maybe! I am ridiculously okay with that. 

I have found so much joy and meaning in accepting the grace of God, that I don't give two poos whether other people think that is foolish or not. I'm done bending my belief system to fit other people's standards. And here's the semi-logical argument I find for believing something so strange and otherworldly as the gospel of Jesus Christ: better to believe it and find out that it's true than not believe it and find out it's still true. When I tell people that, I worry that they'll think that my logic is driven by fear. But for me, it dispels fear. True fear was the realization that I was basing my eternal destiny on my own goodness. I simply couldn't live up to my self-imposed ideas of perfection. 

I referenced earlier that after deciding to strip away all the ideas I had about what it meant to be a Christian and start from scratch, I ended up with very few things I knew for sure. Now, I'm not a universalist, but if there's one thing I've learned, it's that Jesus meets different people in different places. I know this in part because I've been so wrong about some things that I held to be so right, and if it happened once, it could happen again. I believe in the most basic form of the gospel (Christ died for my sins, rose again on the third day, and if I accept that gift, I'm his homegirl for ever and ever, amen), and most of the rest of my beliefs I hold more as informed opinions, for the time being. 

People who don't believe in Jesus as their savior tend to have a lot of questions about different philosophical points. I don't mean to belittle having doubts and questions - I have loads of them myself. I just no longer feel held back by my lack of understanding on so many issues. For me, that's the definition of faith, and it's all that separates me from anyone else who does not believe. 

Reveling in my freedom in Christ makes me feel like a bad Christian most of the time. And I kind of love it. I am so, so happy to be done with the church culture's idea of "good". BUT, I do believe in Truth, and I do seek to obey my Savior. I read through the Bible when I was 16-17, and ever since, I've felt pretty unmotivated to read any more of it. Is this a good thing, even if it's in the name of "freedom in Christ"? No! There is such a thing as discipline and obedience. I am still learning to recognize the good in rules that God has given to us and to follow them out of love. He has called us to evangelize (I could write another miniature book on my thoughts about everything that can fall under that category), pray, read the scripture, tithe, be baptized, etc. I am still recovering from the lies I cocooned myself in for so long, and even if this is dumb, I resist obedience if I can only do it out of shame or guilt. 

Change in my heart can be slow, but I've seen it happen, and I trust that God knows how to irritate me enough to get me to continue changing. In fact, he gets an A+ in irritating me. And still, I want to be with him and be more like him, and that's what makes me sure that I've made the right choice. If it sounds Kumbaya and not-scientifically accurate, you might just be right. And it is glorious.

[image] "I once was lost, but now I'm found..."

God calls some to be scholars, debaters, philosophers, theologians, and generally brainy and specific about their faith. I will always seek to know more and uncover solid truths and articulate my beliefs (including reading his Word, which is the main way he has chosen to communicate with us), but relying on those practices as the end rather than the means nearly cost me my life. Instead, I think God has called me to be a joyful, colorful, occasionally cussy witness to people who are done with a Pharisaical lifestyle. I wish that this story was less messy in the telling and much more intellectual, but the very fact that accepting grace is not my natural bent makes me think that it is what God wants for my life. He changes people, and by his grace, I am a very changed woman.

The enthusiasm I feel when I talk about how this affects my heart renders me unable to shut up. You've probably gathered as much. Being "poor in spirit" is one of the best things that ever happened to me. It doesn't feel totally safe, because sometimes I am faced with big and difficult questions about what it means for my life that I trust in God. I question whether my wishy-washy heart will still believe in the face of tragedy, but I would rather live in the tension of the unknown than live with the lie that I can reach God on my own merit or that I will ever have answers for everything. 

I don't think I've put this whole story and the word "testimony" together before now, but there you go. To me, escaping my original idea of Christianity is almost as miraculous as quitting a bunch of drugs. I can honestly say I am 10,000 times happier being a "bad" Christian than I was trying to be a good one. God has called me by name to be his own, and that name is Grace. 


  1. Love this! I SO resonate with your journey and applaud your bravery and authenticity. Thank you for sharing and allowing us to sojourn a bit with you. May you be bold and adventurous in your continuing pursuit of the Lover of your soul!

    1. I don't know who you are, but thank you for your encouragement! <3


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